30 March 2020

'The future of HR technology has to be about making everything connected’

Ciphr’s new CCO Matt Russell shares his views on HR’s biggest challenges, his ideal working day, and starting a new role remotely


Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery

Cathryn Newbery is head of content and community at Ciphr. She was previously deputy editor at People Management magazine. You can find her on Twitter @c_newbery. Her writing focuses on HR systems and solutions, as well as the employee experience at work.


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Ciphr’s new CCO Matt Russell shares his views on HR’s biggest challenges, his ideal working day, and starting a new role remotely

With a career spanning senior roles in HR industry heavyweights such as LHH Penna, DDI and Benefex, Ciphr’s new chief commercial officer (CCO) Matt Russell brings with him a wealth of sales and industry experience. Here Russell discusses the biggest challenges facing HR professionals right now, why connecting workplace systems is so critical, and how he’s approaching remote onboarding.


What’s brought you to this new role at Ciphr?

After two years at Benefex, I’d begun to wonder ‘what next?’ I knew Ciphr as a business and a number of people, such as Megan , through our work as partners.

As you get older, you realise that an organisation’s culture is critical; you want to join one with a strong culture and strong ethics. I knew from the people I’d met that Ciphr was fundamentally a good place with good people. I also just saw a huge opportunity. What Ciphr is doing in relation to building up the Ciphr Connect proposition, and working with partners to make everything in HR connected, is a massive opportunity. I know that, for many organisations, the big dilemma is disperate data; having all these disconnected systems, and tackling this question of: how do you actually bring everything into one place to make your employees’ life easier and your HR professionals’ lives easier?


What’s your assessment of the current state of the HR technology market?

My lens on the market is that it’s massively fragmented; the employee experience when it comes to technology at work is generally poor. You’ll go into one system to book your holidays, another to submit your expenses, a third one to record sickness and absence, etc. It’s just difficult.

However, I do think the trend is towards more connectedness – more and more organisations are trying to streamline the process. Larger organisations are asking themselves questions like: where do I get my data from? What do I actually do with it? Because if you collect data and don’t do anything with it, it’s totally pointless.

The market is hugely fragmented because a lot of employers have bought new tools and platforms, and my experience has been that these have been badly implemented and badly utilised. The opportunity is going to be around connecting these platforms together. How do you give people a really seamless experience? Helping people work more effectively, particularly remotely, is going to be critical. If you’re working at home, with a fairly sub-standard laptop, you’re going to struggle to get the job done and stay connected culturally. So I think the future has to be about making everything connected, and making the employee experience better. Too many organisations buy loads of tech and then don’t really think about how they’re going to use it.


What are the critical challenges facing HR professionals right now?

Number one is making sure organisations have the right fundamentals in place to keep people working and well. The second is around culture: how do you maintain organisational culture? If movement is restricted for a prolonged period – say, 12 weeks – you can very easily lose a culture. Where a culture is strong, it’s not going to be lost that quickly, but people could still easily feel disconnected and under strain as workloads decrease or increase (depending on the sector). So there’s going to be a culture and also a wellbeing challenge for HR. How do you keep people motivated, engaged and connected when they’re not with each other?

The third thing is about business as usual; all those other HR priorities won’t go away because of the pandemic. Organisations still need to be serving customers. Employers still have to hire, onboard and retain people. Onboarding might be really tricky in some cases; many experienced hires will be ok, but for people in their first job out of school or university, HR teams have to figure out how to bring them into an organisation. HR practitioners can’t let crisis management be all-consuming; they have to adjust to doing business in this ‘new normal’.


What’s going to be your approach to getting to know Ciphr?

I don’t think the onboarding period, for me, needs to feel any different. Normally, I’d meet everyone within the first two weeks. I want people to realise that, although my onboarding will be remote and feel slightly different, I still want to know what motivates you, what drives you outside of work, learn about your home life and understand how you are being affected by this disruption.

I also want to speak with a number of customers – I want to know how they are feeling, what their experiences with Ciphr are like, and how we can support them.


What would your ideal working day look like?

I’m a super early riser. So if I’m in the office, I like to get in really early – I’m a morning person. First thing I’ll be reviewing emails and planning the day ahead, and then I’ll be spending time with the team – dealing with specific issues or having one-to-one meetings, and being involved in client sales. I like to be seen as a player-manager; where are the opportunities? Where are we stuck? How can we get unstuck? Work that is more internally focused – team meetings, or related to the board or webinars – I tend to do in the afternoon. I like to be out and about with staff and clients a couple of times a week, too; an ideal working week would be half in the office and half out and about.


Quick-fire questions

Dogs or cats?

We have a family schnoodle called Betsy.

What’s the last book you read?

I read a lot of non-fiction, most recently The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone. I loved it.

What TV or films are you streaming at the moment?

This will make me sound really dark… Narcos: Mexico and Better Call Saul are two favourites. I’ve also been watching The English Game on Netflix, which is about the first-ever English FA Cup – it’s brilliant.

Tea or coffee?

Coffee – black or flat white.

Favourite biscuit?

Tough one… digestive.

Dream travel destination?


What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

When I was a student, I worked in a four-star hotel making toast. It had to be perfect and I was pretty rubbish at it. I’d end up munching on sub-par toast all day.

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?

An old boss once told me, when I was very overwhelmed, “it always gets done”. Whether you do it now or later, things always get done.